Apr 212015

Losing Your Job is Not the End of the World … Take It With You!

New York's Famous Hotdogs takes their mobile vending unit from Columbia to Lamar, SC

New York's Famous Hotdogs takes their mobile vending unit from Columbia to Lamar, SC

This series began with an overview of how small business vending can be viewed as a viable economic development strategy, especially in difficult financial times. This article continues the theme with an interview of a profitable mobile vending cart business owner based in Columbia, South Carolina.

Pushing Back Economic Downturns

Purely physical, real-world small business activities that could be game-changers for families are not being considered.

Economic development is not only in the purview of cities, states, international organizations, multi-national corporations, or Third World countries building infrastructure. Bringing the idea of economic development closer to home and our wallets, it can start with an idea, a little equipment, something to sell, a location, and a customer. The existence of profitable local business enterprises tells the real story. Whether formal or informal, if it feeds your family, pays your bills, and otherwise changes your economic circumstances, it falls within the purview of economic development activity.

Losing your job is not necessarily the end of the world. Many turn to the internet to find ways to make money online. As such, purely physical, real-world small business activities that could be game-changers for families are not being considered . . . or the lack of information about them relegate them to obscurity. But starting a small business vending operation might be the answer. Let’s find out how in this interview with Quinton Whipper and Gisela Kloess, owners of New York’s Famous Hotdogs (NYFH) of Columbia, South Carolina.

Avoiding A Dilemma

Three years ago, Quinton Whipper was happily working as a finance manager at a loan company. Under the umbrella of realignment, the company filed bankruptcy and fired Quinton a month before his hefty bonus — $18 thousand dollars — was due to be paid.

New York's Famous Hotdogs - Small business owners Quinton Whipper and wife Gisela

New York's Famous Hotdogs - Small business owners Quinton Whipper and wife Gisela

Wracking his brain for the next steps to take to keep his family financially secure and heading off despair, good fortune came his way through a cousin who presented him with an opportunity to try something completely different.

Trading his corporate suit-and-tie attire for an apron and plastic gloves, Quinton and his wife, Gisela, entered the street vending business. In conversations with Gisela and Quinton, they shared why they chose to start up a mobile vending business even though they don’t reside in metropolitan area and some of the unique challenges they’ve faced as entrepreneurs.

Choosing Venue

New York's Famous Hotdogs based in Columbia, SC -Vending cart logoColumbia is the state capital and largest city in South Carolina. CNNMoney.com named Columbia as one of America’s 25 best places to retire, and US News & World Report ranked the city sixth on its 2009 America’s Best Affordable Places to Retire list. Even so, with a population of 129,272 (according to the 2010 census), as “big cities” go, it is a small city. 1Wikipedia article about Columbia, South Carolina. Accessed February 1, 2012. So much so that you won’t see hotdog carts or food trucks on every corner. That was good news for for the Whipper-Kloess family because while competition is good for business, the less competition in a small market, the better the chances for gaining a foothold and ensuring profitability.

Mobile Vending Operations

We’re affected by the weather. During bad weather, customers will go inside a restaurant. But they will not stay outside in the cold or bad weather. — Gisela Kloess, New York’s Famous Hotdogs

Mobile vending is hard. In separate telephone conversations, both Quinton and Gisela admit that there are hurdles to overcome but are quick to also say the rewards outweigh the difficulties encountered. From an operational standpoint, the challenges are very similar to those faced by small business enterprises everywhere: start-up costs and ongoing cash flow, licensing and insurance, personnel, location, marketing, key differentiators and managing growth.

Licensing and Insurance

In a comment to Mitch about mobile vending cart costs for veterans in New York City, I mentioned how veterans have lower entry costs due to the significant break they get from the City because of their veterans status. Neither Quinton nor Gisela indicated that the city of Columbia, South Carolina, offered any such discounted licensing fees.

Start-up Costs

Many people want to know the answer to the burning question: How much does it cost? The standard disclaimer applies here: it depends. All told, their entre into the world of mobile vending cost them around $3,000 – a reasonable amount when compared to usual business start-up costs. That figure covered their state and local business licenses; purchasing the first hotdog cart; inventory including Sabrett™ hotdogs, condiments, and napkins; and insurance (almost a thousand dollars for $500k-$1m coverage).

Whipper-Kloess say earnings, on a daily basis, can range between $150 to $450. Remember, we’re not talking about 8- or 12-hour days; this income is for only a few hours of service, once a day. The potential income is greater when you factor in evening locations, special venues (like a State fair), and contract events (like a company’s employee outing).

Managing Growth

The Whipper-Kloess family started with one hotdog cart and grew to have two carts and a food truck. Prior to publishing this article, Gisela said they were no longer running the food truck. Any mention of food truck in the article refers to prior operations.

As the operation grew, they faced personnel issues. Speaking about finding the right person or the right people to help them man the units and manage it all, Quinton cautions:

[Relying on] family and friends is a bad idea. [You run the risk of] a lack of professionalism. The best way to go [when you grow] is to find someone who has an investment in the success, a stakeholder.

Gisela added that it is important to be organized, in fact, “very organized.”

Key Differentiators

  • the name
  • the product: well-known NY-style frankfurter — “Sabretts™ are better for boiling, Nathan’s™ are better if grilled!”
  • unique menu of healthy toppings
  • incorporating internet technologies
  • being more mobile than the other mobile guys
  • using widely-accepted best business practices
  • connecting local business with community and educational organizations

We’ll talk more about location and marketing a little further down.

Rolling Over Geographical Boundaries

As mentioned earlier, Columbia, South Carolina is not a huge metropolis. Although the competition is not extremely fierce, locations are still a premium commodity. This is partially due to unfriendly city ordinances and negative attitudes of restaurant owners. These situations alone necessitate innovative action on the part of pushcart and foodtruck owners.

Windows of Opportunity

A universal concern to small business owners who operate mobile vending units is the unpredictability of the weather and the small seasonal window through which their profits come. Painfully aware of the need to open that window as wide as it will open, you could say Quinton and Gisela don’t let any grass grow under their feet.

And Then There’s REALLY Mobile!

Spring Break on college campuses is one of those windows of opportunity. They took the photo above in Pananma City, Florida — a few hundred miles away fromtheir home base — after hitching up their hotdog cart and driving down to Florida during one university’s Spring Break. From the looks of it, New York’s Famous Hotdogs was the life of the campus party.

Maybe they’re a bit more mobile than the other mobile vending guys?

This is a key differentiator for this small vending outfit. Being ready, willing, and able to both go with the flow and do things differently is a game-changer, helping them leap over income-shrinking hurdles like strident city ordinances, unfriendly restauranteers and uncontrollable weather.

Blessed with huge helpings of personal determination and entrepreneurial mindsets, Whipper and Kloess use every tool at their disposal to set their vending business apart, including social media, social networking, and daily deals online. We’ll take a closer look at their approach in the next article in the series.

Share Your Thoughts

Here’s the running question: This question stands: Have you ever considered vending as an economic development activity to earn income, prime the small business pump for your family, neighborhood, and wider community?

Share what’s on your mind in the comments below. Thanks for reading and thanks to Gisela and Quinton for talking with me! Drop by the New York’s Famous Hotdogs FaceBook page to say hello.

Credits: Photos courtesy of Gisela Kloess and Quinton Whipper, New York’s Famous Hotdogs, Columbia, SC. Used with permission. All trademarks, service marks, trade names, trade dress, product names and logos appearing on the site are the property of their respective owners, including Sabrett™ and Nathan’s™ Famous Frankfurters, Groupon™, Living Social™ and DealChicken™.

This article is Part 2 in the Economic Development Mobile Vending Series. It was originally published February 24, 2012.

Other Articles in the Economic Development Mobile Vending Series
Read Part 1: Small Business Vending: An Economic Development Strategy
Available soon: Part 3: Social Media: Equalizer for Small Businesses Doing Mobile Vending

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Vernessa Taylor

Technology Consultant, Business Writer at Local Business Coach Online (LBCO)
Founder and editor of the blog here at LBCO. Thanks for reading, sharing, commenting and visiting. See you next time.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Wikipedia article about Columbia, South Carolina. Accessed February 1, 2012.

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  26 Responses to “Redux > Hotdog! Street Vending Saves Family Finances”

Comments (24) Pingbacks (2)
  1. Your experience is an inspiration for all those who are starting to have their own business. Franchising could be another idea where you could also gain income. We have to be determined at all times and pursue our dreams by fulfilling what we want in our lives. Discouragement is a big failure yet we have to overcome challenges in our lives with the help of our friends and family. Thank you so much for sharing this to us.

    • Well spoken! (Next time leave your name so I know who’s speaking!) Franchising is certainly another option; you just have to be prepared for the franchising fees on top of regular operating costs. Thanks for your wonderful words of encouragement.

  2. I think vending business was really good. Here in our lots of people have tried this kind of business. If I lost my work, maybe I will try this one. :)

  3. Awesome article! I’m actually in the process of getting a hot dog cart myself. I thought why work for a company. Plus I figured I would make more money working for myself and this way I can promote my online business. If I’m making $150 to $450 a day (I hope) I should be good :) P.S Vernessa, Thank you for your response and contact info. I really appreciate it :)

    • Kudos to you Joseph! I think you’re on to something. Afterall, Quinton and Gisela did it as a way of replacing income and haven’t looked back. And if you can get the permits for night-time vending, you could feed the folk leaving the bars they found in your directory. Haha!

      You’re welcome re: the contacts. Hope something works out there. I’ve actually left a message for a lady who runs a directory similar to yours in another State. I’ll let you know if she gets back in touch.

  4. Since this is a running question and I used up all my food truck references in the first post, may I buy a vowel? In fact, how ’bout I sell you some vowels!

    Writers who publish may be considered vendors – strictly speaking – and their machines are not hotdog carts but shopping carts like e-junkie.com. So, hmmm, yep! I’m going to be a vendor. If I write books about food, does that count? 😉



    • Ah, now you’re talking, Mitch.

      I’ll take you up on the offer of a vowel, I’m buying the letter “I” and I’ll use it to jumpstart my word: Important. While we’re trading here, let me pick up an “E” which I’ll hold for a moment …

      It is so IMPORTANT during this mad rush to make money online for the average Jane and Joe to make the connections you have made: if you’re selling, if you’re earning, you are vending.

      One reason it is important to make the connection is because a lot of people (I mean a LOT of people) are banging the heads against their keyboards trying to make the online thing work when there are still opportunities to be had offline. Some thought they couldn’t make it in business offline, so came to figure it out online, but the skills, the tenacity, the marketing efforts now gained will level the playing field that previously wasn’t level.

      Ok, I guess I have to hold the “E” a little longer because otherwise I will write the next article for the series in this comment box!

      Yep, you’re a vendor. Books, software, socks, it all rocks! :)

  5. If you sell food on the street, I think you need additional licenses because you need to ensure the food is kept clean.

    • Hi Jason,

      Check some of the comments below your’s. They speak directly to your concerns. Gisela mentions how the Department of Health rides herd on food vendors and Nicole cautions people to use their own judgment about sanitation issues.

      Appreciate your comment!

  6. Thanks for the inspirational idea. I seem to always be looking for a “plan B” in my line of work. I hadn’t considered the vending option, but think it has great potential in my local area.

    • absolutely! You have to be DHEC approved! The rules and regulations are .. tough! But I think it is important to know that DHEC makes sure that all units pass the safety test before releasing them on the public!

      • Hi Gisela,

        Nice to see you here.:) I’m glad you point out the health department’s role in ensuring sanitation. The “transparency” you spoke about in our telephone conversation is what vendors should strive for and consumers should look for. Those efforts will help alleviate some of the fear some people experience when they consider eating at vendors’ carts or food trucks.

  7. This is an inspiring post. Street vending is a modest job and it’s not easy. Food cart businesses today are even growing because people are more into buying inexpensive foods. Add to it, you can clearly see how vendors cooked well their foods. It’s really up to your judgement if you think the foods are sanitized properly or not.

    • Hi Nicole,

      One thing Gisela talked about during our interview was how “transparent” the food preparation is on her cart. Customers can clearly see her (and her husband or employees) wash their hands, put on plastic gloves, etc. Like you said, people have to use their own judgment and be on the lookout for proper sanitation.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.

  8. Mobile vending is getting more and more popular today. Aside from a low cost required start-up capital, the business reaches more potential customers from different places unlike those regular food stalls.

    – Blake

  9. I think being self-employed is a great alternative to being employed. Some people think that being employed is more secure but you can still get downsized or fired for whatever reason. When you are self employed you can keep you job as long as you please the consumer.

    • Hi Steven,

      Pleasing your customers is the name of the game. Quinton told me that one of his greatest rewards is “listening” to and talking with his customers.

  10. The start up cost is not bad and I see that the customers are satisfied with the products and services. I’m thinking of opening a business but I don’t think that I can do vending myself, maybe I’ll outsource man power or make it as a family business.

  11. Hi Vernessa,
    In past, losing job was a big thing but now due to internet facility and online marketing businesses people find better ways to earn money after being unemployed so now losing job is not as much big issue as was in past.

  12. .Hi Vernessa,

    I liked your inspirational idea, Vending is a good business and right now I am satisfied with what I am doing but after reading this post, I have developed some interest in vending business offcourse as plab ‘B’.

  13. I really have no words for the emotion I am going through right now. I just love it when I see everyday struggling people use their resourcefulness to succeed and get through the tough times.

    I just love this country and all the small businesses that make it a world economic power house.

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